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Mary, Queen of Scots - August 2011

[Mary, Queen of Scots] In the Royal Palace of St. James's an Antient Painting. 1580. Delineated and sculpted by G. Vertue (1735)
Clarke General collection

This month marks the 450th anniversary of Mary, Queen of Scots' return to Scotland aged nineteen, following the death of her husband, King François II of France. Mary was born in 1542 and became Queen of Scotland six days later following the death of her father, King James V, after his defeat at the battle of Solway Moss. King Henry VIII was determined to marry the infant Queen to his son, Edward, thus finally uniting the crowns of Scotland and England. This was unpopular with the Scottish nobles who instead made a deal with the French to marry Mary to the Dauphin. This was ratified by the Treaty of Haddington in 1548 and Mary was sent to live in France - a safe distance from the attempts by English troops to kidnap her.

After Francois' death Mary decided to return to Scotland to rule the country of her birth. Her mother, Mary of Guise, had ruled as regent until her death in 1560 and now the nobles had seized power under her half-brother, Lord James Stewart. They welcomed Mary's return. Scotland was now a Protestant, and turbulent, country and, as a Catholic, Mary had to compromise over religion during her reign.

Mary was determined to have her claim to the English throne recognised and hoped that she would be named by Queen Elizabeth as her heir. They made plans to meet in summer 1562 but Elizabeth pulled out at the last minute. Mary was upset and annoyed that she had listened to Elizabeth's opinions about who she should marry. Elizabeth had suggested her own favourite, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, as she thought this would allow her to manipulate Mary's decisions. In the end, Mary married her English Catholic first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley at Holyrood Palace on 29th July 1565. She married without consulting Elizabeth who was furious as both Mary and Darnley were claimants to the English throne and any children would inherit both parents' claims and thus be next in line for the crown.

At first Mary was infatuated with Darnley but before long he became arrogant, demanding more power and to be crowned King. He was also jealous of Mary's friendship with her private secretary, David Rizzio, and he entered into a secret plot with the nobles to get rid of him. They were jealous of Rizzio's position as Mary's favourite and of his influence over her. On 9th March 1566, a group of the lords, accompanied by Darnley, murdered Rizzio in front of the pregnant Mary at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. Mary was kept prisoner but she managed to lure Darnley back to her side and they escaped. However, she could now no longer trust him.

In June, their son James was born. Those nobles who were loyal to Mary met to discuss the problem of Darnley and swore a bond vowing to get rid of him. Darnley knew the tide had turned against him and, fearing for his safety, fled to his father in Glasgow. Here he was taken ill, with what is now believed to have been syphilis. Mary encouraged her husband to come back to Edinburgh and arranged for him to recuperate in a house at the former abbey of Kirk o' Field, within the city walls. In February 1567 an explosion occurred in the house in the middle of the night, and Darnley was found dead in the garden. He appeared to have been strangled. He and a servant were found in their bedclothes with a variety of objects including a chair, a dagger and a rope, leading historians to suggest that they were aware the house was going to explode and were trying to escape. It is possible that they were apprehended whilst fleeing and were strangled to death.

One of the nobles, James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was quickly accused of having supplied the gunpowder for the explosion and he was believed by many to be responsible for Darnley's death. It was Mary's and Bothwell's actions in the wake of Darnley's murder that convinced everyone of their guilt. Such was the evidence against Bothwell that Mary had to arrange a staged trial before Parliament, during which he was acquitted. Bothwell then managed to convince the nobles to sign the Ainslie Tavern Bond, in which they agreed to support him in his attempt to marry the Queen. By now the Scots were beginning to become suspicious of Mary.

In April 1567, Mary visited her son at Stirling, for what would be the last time. On her way back to Edinburgh she was abducted by Bothwell and his men and taken to Dunbar Castle, where she was allegedly raped by Bothwell. They returned to Edinburgh and at Holyrood they were married. Mary believed the marriage had the support of her nobles because of the Ainslie Tavern Bond. But they soon turned against the newlyweds and raised an army against them. Mary and Bothwell confronted them at Carberry Hill on 15th June. Although no fighting took place, Mary agreed to go with the Lords on condition that they let Bothwell go. However, they imprisoned her in a castle on an island in the middle of Loch Leven and forced her to abdicate the throne in favour of her son, James. Her brother James was to act as regent.

In May 1568, Mary escaped and managed to raise a small army. After her army's defeat at the Battle of Langside, she fled by boat across the Solway Firth into England. She appealed to her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, to help restore her to her throne but Elizabeth, fearful of Mary's presence in her country, instead imprisoned her for nineteen years. Following years of plots and escape attempts, Elizabeth eventually had Mary executed at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587. Upon Queen Elizabeth's death, Mary and Darnley's son ascended to the English throne as King James I, finally uniting the Scottish and English crowns.

Historians have examined the evidence and debated whether Mary and Bothwell plotted Darnley's death, without reaching any definitive conclusion. Bothwell was almost certainly involved in Darnley's death, but so were most of the nobles - after all they had signed a bond vowing to get rid of him. It is likely that they pointed the finger of blame at Bothwell in order to save their own lives. That Mary so unquestioningly took his side and then quickly married him has been taken as evidence of her guilt. However, as much as she hated Darnley at this point, as a ruling Queen, it is unlikely that she would have plotted his death. In the aftermath of his murder she would have been fearful for her own life and may have seen Bothwell as a protector. After he allegedly raped her, she would have had no choice but to marry him or forgo her honour. Almost as soon as she was in England, she promised to divorce him and marry someone of Elizabeth's choosing in return for her freedom. It is unlikely she would have been so quick to cast her husband aside if he had been worth committing murder and jeopardising the throne for, just months earlier.